Baby boomers, born post-war between 1946 and 1964, live long but suffer from multiple health problems later in life. By contrast, some of the world’s oldest living populations do not struggle this way. What can we learn from both lifestyles?
A London medical research Council (MRC) study found that the average baby boomer has two medical conditions at retirement age, the most common being hypertension in 50%, obesity in 33%, high cholesterol in 25%, and diabetes or prediabetes in 25%.
A recent University College of London (UCL) study compared the generations of people born between 1945 and 1980. There was a trend of increasing poor health among younger generations. The study concluded that the years gained in life expectancy are wasted in poor health.
Another study in the American Medical Association Journal (JAMA) reported lower activity but higher obesity, cholesterol, diabetes, and hypertension among the post-war generation compared with their parents. 7% used a walking aid (stick) v 3%; 13% had limited daily activities v 8.8%; 75% were hypertensive, v 35%. 13% of the baby boomers rated their health as excellent, with 32% in the older generation.
In general, 66% of the UK adult population, and more worryingly, 28% of children between 2 and 15, are overweight or obese. An obesity pandemic is rising and bringing high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, stroke, and dementia. This keeps us dependent on the medical (NHS) service rather than focusing on creating our own health.
By contrast, the Greek island of Icaria, Sardinia, Okinawa, Nicoya and Loma Linda, California that we call blue zones – the term given to places with the highest rates of nonagenarians and centenarians (over 90 and 100) – where they live long and healthy lives.
Diet, activity, and community
How do they accomplish this? Of course, a few factors involve diet, physical activity, and the community. On the Nicoya peninsula, for example, they ate a diet of beans and continued to perform physical jobs into old age. Loma Linda is a community of religious vegetarians who keeps a strong family connection.
Again, on Icaria, they enjoy the sunshine and hard work alongside a Mediterranean diet of olive oil and locally produced vegetables. Sardinia encourages an active life into old age, as its inhabitants work on mountainous farms and drink red wine! In Okinawa, Japan, their activity of choice is tai chi, and their diet is soy-based.
People in blue zones generally drink water (not soft drinks), tea, coffee, and wine, eat whole homegrown food and pursue active lives in supportive communities.
People here do not tend to get ill in the first place, whereas baby boomers do – and when boomers do, they resort to pills and surgery, rather than a lifestyle change, to fix the problem at the root level. They are just papering over the cracks.
Indeed, advances in science and medicine – like heart bypass surgery, stent insertion, and drugs that can lower cholesterol and blood pressure – allow and even encourage unhealthy patients to continue living longer but increasingly unhealthy and inactive lives. The surgery and the pills do not improve their quality of life.
Feeding your long, healthy life
So, what can the blue zone teach us about the lifestyle we should be pursuing if we want not just a long but also a healthy life? Let’s start with diet.
Studies have shown that olive oil increases our good (HDL) cholesterol and lowers our bad (LDL). And indeed, people in the blue zones consume around six teaspoons of olive oil daily.
They eat whole food, lightly cooked or raw, but not highly processed. Fermented food to increases the bioavailability of nutrients in sourdough bread and pickled vegetables; they eat raw fruits, vegetables, and whole grains; and stop eating when they are 80% full.
They sip water throughout the working day to stay hydrated. Hydration enhances the blood flow and prevents clots, which can cause acute vascular events such as stroke or heart attack.
They drink coffee that prevents Parkinson’s disease and dementia, green tea rich in antioxidants, and anti-inflammatory herbs like rosemary, sage and dandelion. Blue zone dwellers also tend to drink 2 or 3 small glasses of red wine daily, in social settings – during meals or with friends.
People in the blue zones eat whole grain or sourdough bread, which contains a wide range of nutrients and high levels of fibre. Contrast this with our Western commercial loaves, made from bleached white flour, which quickly break down into sugar and raise insulin levels.
Blue zone dwellers also take a couple of handfuls of nuts each day. These are high in minerals and vitamins, and they generally lower your cholesterol. One study found that nut-eaters outlive others by 2 to 3 years.
In addition, each of the five blue zones makes beans a central element of their diet. Beans are 77% complex carbohydrate and 21% protein and are high in fibre.
Blue zone people also eat eggs 2 to 4 times a week. Crucially these eggs come from free-range chickens, who eat a variety of natural food with no pesticides, antibiotics, or hormones.
They also make yoghurt and cheese from fermented goats and sheep’s milk. Goat milk contains lactase, an enzyme that digests lactose. This is helpful to 60% of people who have difficulty digesting lactose. Again, contrast this with the Western fixation on cows’ milk, which is high in fat, sugar, and lactose. You won’t be surprised to learn that cows’ milk does not feature in blue zone diets.
Blue zone inhabitants eat three small servings of fish per week, including cod, sardines, and anchovies. These are high in omega-3 fatty acids and are much less likely to contain mercury and other pollutants. They eat little meat.
The Adventist health study followed 96,000 Americans for over 20 years and found the longest-living people ate a plant-based diet and a small quantity of fish.
Diet is vital – but it is only one element
Some blue zone dwellers have periods of fasting, which, studies have shown, lower cholesterol and body mass index. Intermittent fasting (for 16 continuous hours out of every 24) can have a similar effect.
Blue zone inhabitants lead lives where exercise is built rather than bolted. Instead of going to the gym, blue zoners tend to live in remote hilly areas farming and walking long distances.
A noteworthy study revealed that the number of miles travelled on foot each day, or the stairs climbed, could predict life expectancy.
Restful sleep is also vital. In blue zones, people tend to sleep at regular hours. Siestas are also common. But sleep duration is crucial too. An overall analysis of 35 sleep studies found that seven to eight hours of sleep at night was optimal. Napping was also beneficial, with 30 minutes or less being ideal but longer associated with a greater risk of heart disease and death.
Many blue zone communities are religious, which may reduce the likelihood of depression. We know that a life purpose is also vital for well-being. The blue zoners who live in extended families enjoy this with, for example, grandparents looking after their grandchildren, thus prolonging their feeling of having an important role in life.
So, my friends, whilst the baby boomers are living longer, they are not enjoying decent health in their old age. By contrast, the oldest populations (the blue zoners) manage both, by eating the right diet, perhaps with some element of fasting, with physical activity built into their daily lives, the right amount of sleep, and an extended life purpose within supportive families and community networks.
Which detrimental baby boomer habits can you drop? And which beneficial blue zone lifestyles can you adopt? Therein lies the path to a longer AND healthier life.
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